Too much information? Study shows how ignorance can be influential

March 24, 2008

In the current issue of The RAND Journal of Economics, USC researchers provide a challenge to the classic economic model of information manipulation, in which knowing more than anybody else is the key to influence.

Instead, economists Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo present a situation – commonly observed in real life – in which all parties have access to the same information, but one party still manages to control public opinion.

For example, a pharmaceutical company such as Merck may be obliged to make public the findings of all studies related to a new drug. Preliminary trials may indicate no short-term side effects, and the company may elect not to perform follow-up trials before releasing the drug on the market.

“Optimally, you want to provide enough information so the other party reaches a certain level of confidence, but stop once you reach that level,” Brocas explained. “Otherwise, it may be the case that more information causes the confidence level to go down.”

The study, “Influence Through Ignorance,” is the first to thoroughly examine situations in which power comes from controlling the flow of public information, as opposed to the possession of private information.

As Brocas and Carrillo explain, there are secrets – facts that are deliberately withheld – and there are facts that are not known to anybody.

“It’s not necessary to have extra information,” Brocas said. “You can induce people to do what you want just by stopping the flow of information or continuing it. That’s enough.”

Notably, the party manipulating the flow of information must deliberately choose to remain uninformed as well – which can backfire.

In Merck’s case, a study released five years after the drug was introduced on the market showed that taking Vioxx significantly increased the risk of heart attacks. Merck funded the study, which had been intended to see if the painkiller was also effective against colon polyps.

Now, embroiled in a $4.85 billion settlement, the company claims that Vioxx poses no statistically significant long-term risk to the heart once it is no longer taken. This claim is disputed: Merck stopped monitoring patients after only a year, discontinuing the study once the drug was taken off the market.

Similarly, the researchers explain, the head of a council may terminate discussion and introduction of new evidence about, say, whether to continue searching for weapons of mass destruction. Calling for a vote when sentiment seems biased in a certain direction effectively curtails how much all members, including the chairperson, know about the issue at stake.

“Overall, the ability of to control the flow of news and remain publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the actions of the follower,” the researchers wrote. “Our result suggests that the chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee, electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information.”

Brocas and Carrillo are in the midst of a follow-up to the study that gauges how well individuals intuitively understand the “influence through ignorance” phenomenon: “We’re interested in whether people understand their ability to manipulate information and if they do it optimally,” Brocas said.

The paper also provide implications for several important variants, such as how public opinion is affected when there is more than one source of information available to everyone and it is not excessively costly to obtain.

Competition, supported by media diversity and public sources of research funding, not only induces outlets to release more information but also causes the “influence through ignorance” effect to diminish – and under certain circumstances to vanish – the researchers found.

Source: University of Southern California

Explore further: Political polarization on Twitter depends on the issue

Related Stories

Political polarization on Twitter depends on the issue

August 27, 2015

Twitter offers a public platform for people to post and share all sorts of content, from the serious to the ridiculous. While people tend to share political information with those who have similar ideological preferences, ...

Waikiki water tested for bacteria after sewage spill

August 26, 2015

Hawaii's white sand beaches in Waikiki were mostly deserted after officials warned the public about a half-million-gallon sewage spill in Ala Moana Beach Park, which is adjacent to the world-famous tourist destination.

Investments heat up online news sector

August 23, 2015

Suddenly the online news business is red-hot. Money is flowing into digital news ventures at an unprecedented pace, as investors anticipate an accelerating shift away from traditional media, and new ways to generate revenue ...

EPA knew of 'blowout' risk for tainted water at gold mine

August 22, 2015

U.S. officials knew of the potential for a catastrophic "blowout" of toxic wastewater from an inactive gold mine, yet appeared to have only a cursory plan to deal with such an event when government contractors triggered a ...

Pilot program aims to improve traffic flow, safety

August 20, 2015

The City of Edmonton is piloting new traffic technology to help drivers get where they need to faster, easier and more safely, with the help of the University of Alberta's Centre for Smart Transportation.

Recommended for you

Early human diet explains our eating habits

August 31, 2015

Much attention is being given to what people ate in the distant past as a guide to what we should eat today. Advocates of the claimed palaeodiet recommend that we should avoid carbohydrates and load our plates with red meat ...

Just how good (or bad) is the fossil record of dinosaurs?

August 28, 2015

Everyone is excited by discoveries of new dinosaurs – or indeed any new fossil species. But a key question for palaeontologists is 'just how good is the fossil record?' Do we know fifty per cent of the species of dinosaurs ...

Fractals patterns in a drummer's music

August 28, 2015

Fractal patterns are profoundly human – at least in music. This is one of the findings of a team headed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen and Harvard University ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.